University of Virginia Library

I WAS born about the year 1794, on a large plantation, thirty odd miles above Richmond, Virginia, and was descended, in the third generation, from imported Africans, and, probably, from some of the darkest of the native race; for my parents as well as myself were pretty black—more so than slaves generally are now. My parents belonged to a gentleman supposed to be wealthy, residing in Williamsburg, who had been a member of the King's Council, and afterwards of the House of Delegates. Of course, he seldom visited his distant estate, but intrusted it—comprising more than six thousand acres, and slaves enough to cultivate it—to the management and the honesty of an overseer. As in most other cases, the overseer managed very well for himself, but not so well for his employer; and, at the death of my parents' master, his debts and legacies encumbered his estate so much, that his only son, who then removed to the lands before-mentioned, and whom I designate as my master, found himself compelled to sell immediately a portion of the slaves. My parents and their five children—including myself, then an infant—were amongst those sold. But their kind master did the best he could for them, and sold the whole family, privately, to some man very near or beyond the mountains. The contrast between their new situation and the mild government of their young master, soon rendered my parents greatly dissatisfied; and, after a few months, they both absconded from the purchaser, leaving their four elder children, whom they never saw again, and taking me with them. They found their way back to their former neighborhood, and, for a summer and part of autumn, were concealed in a large body of woods on their former master's premises. Of course, all the neighboring slaves soon knew their lurking-place, and supplied them with food, and often with shelter. At length the young master was informed, in some way, of the circumstance; and, with that kindness which distinguished him through life, he repurchased my parents and myself, at considerable loss and inconvenience.

The running away of slaves, that is, their concealment on or near their master's premises, or sometimes at a distance of several miles, is inevitable. The exercise of arbitrary and irresponsible power will produce a determination to counteract or escape from its effects. In almost every instance, the fear or the infliction of bodily punishment drives the slave to the woods. Few of those who lurk about the neighborhood abscond, because such a life is preferable to that on the plantation, and many resort to it in the hope that the master's desire for them to return to their labor will induce him to overlook a fault which the slave persuades himself does not deserve stripes. A few, repugnant to labor, or rendered desperate by harsh usage, will resort to almost any expedient to escape. In one instance, I knew two men to live more than a year in a cave, in a large wood, about a mile from their master's house. The stock on the adjacent farms supplied them with meat, and bread was easily gotten from their fellow-slaves—for, in almost every such case, regular communication is kept up


between the fugitive and his class, always in the night, and the runaway often visits the adjacent cabins. This is done with all possible precaution, lest some white person detect them. But they never fear a betrayal by one of their own race; nor will the hope of reward or the fear of punishment generally extort any information that might lead to the capture of the fugitive. The cave of the two men was discovered by means of the smoke issuing from its mouth, and they were carried to their owner. Yet even these never resorted to such a life again. One was sold about twenty years afterward, to a neighbor; the other died at a great age, the property of his master's grandson. Many slave-owners feel such compassion for the runaway, upon the general ground that he has been driven to the step, that they will make no effort to capture him. I knew a gentleman to come suddenly upon one fast asleep in a large wood. He awoke the man, asked him a few questions, and, after advising him to return to his master, with a request from himself not to punish him, he left him.

My earliest recollection of myself is, as a little, black, dirty, uncombed, and unwashed animal, scantily covered with odds and ends of cotton or woolen garments in cool weather, and in the warm season neither having nor desiring any other covering than my own dark skin. And this was universal amongst children, whether male or female, until nine or ten years old. The truth is, the whites in that locality were in a remote situation, at a distance from the frequented roads, and far behind most parts of the state in intelligence and improvement. Raising tobacco was the one sole object in life. They ate tobacco—they breathed tobacco—they talked tobacco—and they worked tobacco, all day long, and often far into the night, from the beginning to the end of the year. A crop, occupying so much time, and requiring so much attention, compelled both whites and blacks to neglect everything else; and, generally, the former were ignorant and exacting, the latter debased and barbarous, with scarcely a want fully satisfied, and with little more intelligence than the beasts that perish. Since the period I speak of, the march of improvement has reached even that secluded neighborhood, and the condition of all classes has greatly improved.

I sat in the ashes, or made dirt-pies in the sand, or hunted for berries or birds' nests, until old enough to carry a pail of water on my head; and then I was made, by my parents, the carrier of everything not beyond my strength. I have heard of Indians called Flatheads, because of the shape given to their skulls by pressure. But, if pressure can flatten the human head, my race should all be thus deformed; for, in childhood, our heads are the universal vehicles of transportation. It may be that our skulls are mercifully fashioned a little thicker than those of the whites or Indians, in anticipation of this drudgery. A year or two later, I became the carrier of water and food to the hands in the fields; and then was advanced to the post of cow-driver and attendant on the dairy-maid. Now I began to be noticed by my master, and came gradually to be considered in his employment, and began to plow and attend to horses.

My young master, being a bachelor, was much from home; and as soon as I could manage a horse pretty well, I became his attendant—his body-servant, as such were called—on his journeys; he on one horse and I on another, with his portmanteau, as large as myself, strapped behind my saddle. I was now in that privileged station, from which I looked down with contempt, not only on most of my own race, but on all poor white folks, as we called all who had not a fair share of property or intelligence. My position as attendant on a gentleman-bachelor of large property, who traveled a good deal, and was at all times kind to his dependents, was, perhaps, the most pleasant that slavery can exhibit. If my master thought it necessary to reprove me, 'twas always more in kindness than in anger, and to blows he never resorted. In fact, I was too much indulged to fulfill properly my duties as a slave. When at home, I now became the waiter in the house, and a kind of doer of all work about the premises, and, consequently, avoided altogether subjection to the overseer. My master intrusted the management of his lands and field-hands too much, perhaps, to overseers—those dreaded and despised obstacles between slaves and their owners, who commonly have no bowels of compassion for the slave, and little care for the interests of the master. Overseers are fruitful causes


of disturbance and resistance. Most slaves submit at once to the most unjust treatment from the master, but shrink with horror from the overseer's hands. They think correction belongs of right to the master, the they know the overseer cares nothing for them; nor do they ever expect his justice to be tempered with mercy. It is true, the severity of the overseer's rule is usually in the ratio of the master's requirement; so that, if the latter be considerate, not in haste to be rich, he overrules the overseer and protects his negroes pretty well. This was remarkably the case with my master.

A material circumstance in my life now occurred. My master's father had emancipated an elderly negro, named Joe, before such acts were prohibited, and had conveyed to him about sixty acres of land, part of my present master's estate. This old man and his wife now brought from Williamsburg a young female relation named Sally, with her husband and one or two children, who were all free. Sally was one of the most beautiful of women. I have never seen one of her color I thought comparable to her. I soon became madly in love. I knew that what is called the marriage tie is usually of little obligation amongst slaves; and that free negroes, being no better taught, if as well, were probably not more virtuous. And how can the slave be expected to observe the marriage vows? In most cases they make none—plight no troth—have a sort of understanding that their agreement shall continue until one or both choose to form some other tie. And even if wishing to continue faithful unto death, they know their master deems their vows null and void, if he choose to separate them; and he often does thus without scruple, by selling one or both. When their superiors disregard their slaves' obligations, the slaves will think lightly of them, too; and this utter contempt of the whites for the sacredness of marriage amongst


slaves, has done more to demoralize and brutalize the slave than all the other personal wrongs he suffers. This brings them all, the good and the bad, to a common level. A common lot befalls them all. The sentiment that should exist in marriage, is excluded or crushed by the necessity of their condition; and the tie becomes a mere liaison, founded upon the instinct of the brute. But to proceed: I determined, if possible, to get Sally from her husband, and make her my wife; and, after much delay, and more that cannot be told, I found she was not superior to her race or her condition. For a good while, she might be said to have two husbands; but finally her first husband went back, with his own children, to Williamsburg, in company with old Joe, who had sold his land, and Sally became my acknowledged wife. My master strongly disapproved my conduct; but, always kind to the unthankful and the evil, her permitted me, as he did his other men, to build a cabin on the margin of the forest, and thither I carried Sally. And now, after the lapse of more than thirty years, and I am tottering on the brink of the grave, I cannot say that I feel any great compunction for having taken another man's wife to be my wife. So common has destiny or necessity made it, that we think it sanctioned by custom, and that our masters are responsible for whatever of wrong there be in it.

Sally bore me several children, and in a few years I had a large family to maintain. My wife and children were free, and my master, after giving them a house and patch of ground, fuel, and a supply of meal weekly, and having more than enough of his own slaves to provide for, could not be expected to give them more. Sally, I regret to say, was too much given to sloth and improvidence—those plague-spots inherited from our ancestors, and fostered by our condition here. Most of my time, during the day, being given to my master's interests, necessity compelled me to resort to expedients, to which my own depraved nature and the example of other slaves already tempted me. There were, in our vicinity, plenty of poor white folks, as we contemptuously called them, whom we cordially despised, but with whom we carried on a regular traffic at our master's expense.

I became a constant dealer in grain and tobacco with certain white men, who purchased grain at a few cents or a pint of whisky per bushel, and tobacco at about the same rate. My master, I now believe, suspected that he was unmercifully robbed; but with a Christian forbearance, as rare as it is injudicious, preferred suffering wrong to punishing the wrong-doer. The overseer had tact enough to know that he should not be more vigilant than his employer required; and thus we could carry on our operations by night, almost without fear of detection. Most of my master's men cultivated a few square yards in corn and tobacco, merely as a pretext for reaping a large crop, and I followed the example. Tobacco was our favorite crop. Its value, compared with its weight, was much greater than that of grain, and a man's shoulders could bear off, in one night, what would bring a sum sufficient for a week or two. Sometimes a daring theft would provoke a general search throughout the neighborhood, and those so unlucky as to be detected, were severely punished. On one occasion only this was my misfortune. A neighbor discovered some stolen tobacco in possession of one of his men. To this man I had intrusted some, to be carried with his to Richmond. This we had permission to do. But the man had, at least, received some stolen tobacco, and 'tis probable I had added to my store in the same way, though, at this distance of time, I cannot be sure. We were both carried before a magistrate, and punished with forty stripes, save one, most vigorously applied.

But these little mischances never long interrupted our operations. We thought—and slaves will always think—they have a right—of the kind which the whites call a moral right—to a fair proportion of the proceeds of their labor, and that any means are excusable towards securing that portion. Hence, theft from the master is generally deemed a light offense, if not strictly justifiable. They think the master defrauds them publicly, and they will steal from him privately, and that the secret act is no worse than the open injury. In fact, slavery not only renders the slave dishonest, but it makes the poorest whites dishonest, too. The facility with which they can make enormous profits by their trade with slaves, and the impunity afforded by their legal privileges, tempt them beyond what their feeble


moral sense can bear, and they become the most vicious and despicable creatures upon earth, whether black or white.

My children, as they became large enough to be useful, were placed in the surrounding families, or I should have found it impossible to support them, by fair means or foul; and after all, my family lived poorly enough. After some years the neighboring whites began to demand the removal of this family of free blacks, either because they suspected it to be the centre of the nocturnal traffic, or because their presence might render the slaves dissatisfied. This demand soon became general and loud; and my master, thinking it best to yield to the increasing discontent, advised Sally to move elsewhere. She was about to set off to Williamsburg, when she was taken sick, it was never known of what disease—some thought it brought on by grief—and after a few weeks she was snatched from me by a greater, but not more inexorable, power than the white neighbors. I was then more than forty years old, and had some of our younger children with me. They were placed with my mother and other women on the plantation, and I found myself a lonely and discontented man. I believed myself to have been cruelly wronged in some way. I could not clearly decide whether by the neighbors, or by the world, or by the laws of the land, and I became morose, quarrelsome, and vengeful. Like Cain, my hand was against every man, and every man's hand against me. I avoided much communication, for several years, with my fellow-slaves, and became careless and reckless. I could not then perceive, in my wife's death, a just retribution and requital of her first husband's wrongs. I could not perceive that justice was meted to me as I had measured it to him. But now I hope I can say, that whatever may have been my actual guilt in winning her, I deserved to lose her.

Now, sole occupant of my cabin, I was too much engaged out of doors to render it comfortable, nor did I care how dirty or untidy it was. I disregarded the little luxuries coveted by some slaves. A stool or a broken chair sufficed for a seat; a rude bedstead of undressed boards, with some old clothes or blankets, ministered adequately to my rest; and a gridiron, a skillet, and old hoe, a small pot, and one or two plates, supplied an abundant kitchen apparatus. In cold weather, the numerous crevices between the logs, which I was too careless to fill with clay, admitted such draughts of air that the only comfortable spot was the corner in the ample fireplace, and there, on my rough stool, with my shins almost in the fire, I passed the night—when not on some secret expedition. I raised a few fowls and a pig, annually; but the permission to have the latter is not often granted.

My master had an only child, a daughter, who was now about to be married; but, a few weeks before that event, he died, after a painful and lingering illness. He had all his life been embarrassed by his father's debts, and had sold, from time to time, at least five-sixths of his land, and many slaves. The remaining slaves felt a painful interest in their master's death, and the marriage of their young mistress. They were about to fall into the hands of a man of whom they knew little, and who, they thought, could not be as kind and forbearing as their old master. None were sold to pay debts, and we all came, almost imperceptibly, into the possession of the young mistress's husband, and soon found it necessary to be more regular in our duties. I had so long done much as I pleased, that I was still headstrong and heedless; but not many months after my new master assumed authority, I paid so little regard to some directions, that he instructed the overseer to chastise me. This astonished, but subdued me. I had not had stripes inflicted since the affair of the tobacco; but, somehow or other, I felt that I deserved correction, and I believe the significant hint had a salutary effect on all the slaves. Our master was neither exacting nor unkind—indulgent as far as he thought reasonable—but requiring a fair performance of the various duties and labors of the farm. I now became more regular at my work and in my habits, and in a year or two took another wife, a slave, on a plantation five or six miles distant. I say I took a wife, for we literally took each other, the taking constituting the marriage. This time, also, I took another man's wife, but he had been dead a year or more. I had the usual permission to go to my wife's house every Saturday afternoon, and return on Monday morning.


I still had my cabin at home; but it became, if possible, more uncomfortable and more neglected than ever, because I was content to make any shift for five nights in the week, relying upon the rest and repose of the other two to relieve the strain on my faculties.

A few years after I got my second wife, and when I was about fifty-five years old, my master removed to what is called the Valley of Virginia. Nearly all my living children were in Richmond, and, at my request, I was permitted to go thither, to be hired. But I had other views. I thought, after my master's removal to a great distance, I might, with my children's help, live uncontrolled in Richmond. I therefore took care neither to be hired, nor to return to my master. After a while he understood my device, and made a deed of gift of me to a relative of his wife, who lived in the neighborhood he had left. This cousin, finding I was lurking about my old home—for I was afraid to remain long in Richmond—requested me, through some of his slaves, to come to him. Afraid of being apprehended, I thought it best to comply; but not believing that I owed service to any but the master over the mountains, I neglected my duties, and, in truth, was unmanageable. After a short trial, this, my third master, sold me in Richmond, for fifty dollars. I now found myself condemned to harder labor than ever before. I was required to do more than my age or strength could bear, was scantily fed and clothed, and was often punished. I now bitterly lamented my folly in not going with my second master over the mountains, and, for a long time, I tried to mature some plan for reaching him. I got, from one of his men, who had been to the valley, and was then hired in Richmond, some little information about the route; and, at length, after undergoing, for five or six years, more hardships than in my whole previous life, one night, in the month of May, I fled from Richmond and my hard master, and began, on foot, a journey of one hundred and fifty miles, through a country, the greater part of which was entirely unknown to me. I traveled almost wholly at night, because I knew there was great danger of being apprehended as a runaway. I had only a few cents, and provisions for a day or two—was in rags—and weak and emaciated from age and the excesses of my early life. But the belief that, if I could reach my best friends, I should be treated with kindness during the little remnant of life, encouraged me to struggle on. When my means were exhausted, I occasionally begged a little food from other slaves, and sometimes got directions for the way. Once over the mountains, I found nobody molested negroes, and I traveled more by day; and, at length, worn down with weariness and want, I knew I must be near the desired haven. A house was pointed out, by a passing slave, as the home of my former master; but, even then, I was afraid to approach by day. At last, towards night, I ventured up to a house which, I was confident, was occupied by slaves. As I reached the door, I was met by a young man with a light, whom I remembered as a boy some eight years before. To his inquiry—"Who are you?"—I made no reply; when he held the light to my face, and immediately shouted: "Why, if here ain't our Ralph." I had thus safely accomplished what very few slaves could hope to do, and what my fellow-slave in Richmond asserted to be impossible.

I was kindly received, and my pressing wants were at once supplied. My flight from my legal owner was soon known. My protector well knew he was liable to prosecution for harboring a runaway; but I was infirm and nearly past labor, and he was too humane to take any steps to restore me to my owner, or to refuse to support me. He never inquired the name of that owner, nor do I believe he ever knew it. After some time, finding no warning of my flight in the Richmond papers, he inferred that my master did not care to recover me, and permitted me to work in the garden. I was not required to do so, and what I did was done willingly. My protector would sometimes tell me, in jest, that he must inform my master where I was concealed; but I believe he said it only as a means of putting me on my good behavior. I soon discovered slavery to be entirely different in that part of the valley. Almost universally slaves are abundantly fed and clothed, and corporeal punishment is rare. They are civilly treated by all classes of whites, and are very seldom required to show a pass. In this farming and grazing country, the labor is light, except in harvest and in thrashing; and


nowhere in Virginia is slavery so tolerable as in the valley.

And now, after enjoying, for more than two years, that rest which my feeble old age requires, I find myself hastening to the grave; and in what frame of mind? Many of the slaves, with whom I was brought up, were members of the Baptist church, and, I now believe, were consistently pious, according to their knowledge. But I had always scoffed at religion and the religious. I loved too well the wages of iniquity to think of a hereafter; or, if I did, it was in a way common to many of my race—that a merciful God would not punish us here, and in the next life too—that, after a life of slavery, he would give us our reward. But, with death close at hand, my blindness and ignorance are, I hope, a little dispelled. In my imperfect, and, I fear, improper, way, I try to ask God's mercy, and to put my trust in the Saviour; but 'tis all dark before me, and I fear that, in a little while, it will be said of me, he died as a dog dieth. Weak to prostration, and with the swollen frame of dropsy, I can only wait till my change comes, often crying out, "God be merciful to me a sinner."